The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in early 1956, for his leadership of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.
“We must use the weapon of love. … We must have compassion and understanding for those who hate us. So many people have been taught to hate, taught from the cradle. They are not totally responsible,” King told reporters during a prayer meeting.
A month later, King was convicted of conspiring to interfere with a lawful business and sentenced to 386 days in jail and a $500 fine. Before 1956 was over, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bus segregation and King ended the nonviolent protest. King’s name was now rising nationwide — and his trips to Chicago became frequent.
He was given an honorary degree by the Chicago Theological Seminary in 1957. He was also the keynote speaker at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights at Soldier Field on June 21, 1964 — where he told the crowd of more than 57,000, “We must continue to engage in demonstrations, boycotts, and rent strikes and to use all the resources at our disposal. We must go to the ballot box and vote in large numbers. But nonviolence is the most total weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for human dignity.”
Al Raby — then a young public schoolteacher and co-founder of the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations — asked King to travel north and assist the city’s fledgling civil rights movement.
Ten years after the bus boycott, three years after delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech and two years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, King did — but not everyone welcomed him. This disdain extended to the Tribune’s editorial department too.
“He was not very well received by the white establishment and, in particular, by Mayor (Richard J.) Daley who saw him as an outsider, a troublemaker and a threat to his regime,” said Jonathan Eig, Chicago-based author of the biography “King: A Life,” which will be released May 16.
King led marches — including one through Marquette Park in which he was struck in the head by a rock and announced, “I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today” — and met with city leaders to discuss how to provide better schools and housing for Chicago’s Black community.
Was King successful in making any lasting changes?
Eig’s take: “A lot of people view his Chicago campaign as a failure. He did not win the kind of deep and lasting structural changes that he sought. And the way people tend to portray that is that he was outsmarted or outmaneuvered by Daley. I think there’s another way of looking at it.
“Martin Luther King gave Daley and Chicago a path forward. He showed them in concrete terms how we could improve the city’s race relations, fight poverty, integrate neighborhoods and schools. He offered a blueprint and Chicago turned it down and walked away from it. That’s how I would perceive it. I don’t think it was a failure — I think it was stiff-necked, stubborn opposition from the people who were clinging to the status quo.”
King visited Chicago less frequently in 1967, blaming city officials for not living up to their promises. On April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed in Memphis.
Chicago history | More newsletters | Puzzles & Games | Today’s eNewspaper edition
The Tribune recently uncovered these rarely seen photos.
Fifty-seven years ago this month, King moved to Chicago with plans to target public and private institutions.
Yet for generations of Chicagoans born after King’s murder in 1968, the civil rights leader may be more recognizable for the national holiday named in his honor — than for his leadership of what King called the first significant freedom movement in the North.
“We forget that King really did challenge us to rethink the whole structure of American society and was pushing us to really go further,” Eig told the Tribune. “He was a lot more radical and a lot more courageous than we give him credit for.” Read more.
King tells reporters he is working on a three-phase plan to mobilize the roughly 1 million Blacks in Chicago. While spending a few days each week in the city, King planned to target public and private institutions “which have created infamous slum conditions directly responsible for the involuntary enslavement of millions of Black men, women and children.” Read the original Tribune story.
It’s revealed that King will live in a four-room, third-floor walk-up apartment at 1550 S. Hamlin Ave. in North Lawndale. Rent is $90 per month (about $840 in today’s dollars). He moves in a few days later. Today the site is home to the Dr. King Legacy Apartments, which were constructed in 2011. Read the original Tribune story.
In a meeting with Chicago police Superintendent O.W. Wilson, King lays out his plan — 1) educating people about slum conditions; 2) organizing slum dwellers into a union to force landlords to comply with demands at the risk of rent strikes; and 3) mobilizing tenants of rundown homes into an army of nonviolent demonstrations — and says he is willing to risk a jail sentence, but would aim to “persuade rather than to create bitterness.” Read the original Tribune story.
Speaking before the East Garfield Park People’s Conference, King tells a group “we must organize to solve these problems and there is power in numbers.” Read the original Tribune story.
King threatens boycotts against local industries (starting with bread, milk, soup and soft drink companies) — an extension of his Operation Breadbasket campaign in Atlanta — who refuse to hire Black workers. Jesse Jackson heads the initiative and becomes its national director in 1967. Read the original Tribune story.
From apartment buildings to pool halls, King recruits people to join his effort. Read the original Tribune story.
Asked if he considered the action legal, King tells reporters: “I won’t say that it is illegal, but I would call it supralegal (above the law). The moral question is far more important than the legal one.” Mayor Richard J. Daley says the city will not intervene in the matter and launches a code enforcement program. The building’s owner, John Bender, files a lawsuit against King a few days later.
King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, and others immediately begin to clean up the six-flat at 1321 S. Homan Ave. in North Lawndale. Read the original Tribune story.
- Tribune editorial from March 8, 1966: “The seizure of this building no doubt was intended by the King organization to be a dramatic illustration of the evils of the slums and how to cure them. The stunt backfired.”
At the star-studded Chicago Freedom Festival fundraiser — featuring Harry Belafonte, Dick Gregory, Mahalia Jackson and Sidney Poitier — King tells the more than 12,000 people in attendance that a Black person in Chicago is an alien in an affluent society. He also says he’s come to Chicago to give the Black community dignity, self-respect and power. Read the original Tribune story.
“I think Dr. King is a religious leader who feels intently the causes he espouses. But you can’t lay deprivation of education and slums solely to Chicago,” Daley said afterward. “The city’s problems in these areas did not originate here but came from the various southern states. The religious leaders attending these meetings are being asked to help solve these problems.” Read the original Tribune story.
When they meet again in July 1966, King tells reporters he’s dissatisfied with city officials’ lack of “specific comments” and threatens there will be “many more marches” in Chicago that summer.
King delivers another speech at Soldier Field on a sweltering day remembered as Freedom Sunday, outlining his 14 basic goals of the Chicago Freedom Movement for the 30,000 attendees and then later posting them to the LaSalle Street entrance of City Hall. Read the original Tribune story.
Just days after the speech, three nights of looting and unrest unfold in the city with the National Guard called in to patrol its streets. Daley blames outsiders — accusing some members of King’s staff — for causing the unrest.
“The best remedy we have to offer from riots is to press our nonviolent program even more vigorously,” King responds.
King is hit in the head by a rock thrown at him as he leads hundreds of demonstrators through “a hail of rocks, bottles and curses” the Tribune reports during a march to a real estate office in Marquette Park. The blow knocks him down on one knee, but he soon gets back up.
“I have to do this — to expose myself — to bring this hate into the open,” he tells reporters. Read the original Tribune story.
After weeks of heated protests led by King in the city and suburbs, he and Mayor Daley — who called it a “great day” in the history of Chicago — meet at the Palmer House to work out a path forward together. Their pact, known as the Summit Agreement, addresses the concerns that brought King to Chicago eight months earlier. A protest planned for Cicero is postponed.
“Never before has such a far-reaching move been made,” King says. Read the original Tribune story.
King publicly criticizes the city’s “failure to live up to last summer’s open housing agreement.” Read the original Tribune story.
Two days later he leads a march on State Street against the Vietnam War.
Though he previously threatened to spend another summer in Chicago leading protests in favor of open housing, he abandons that effort in July 1967. He praises Chicago’s Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities.
“I know of no other city that has done as much,” he says at a news conference.
- Tribune editorial from July 13, 1967: “Well, thanks for small favors. Our spirits have been purged from on high, and recent summer days have been sufficiently steamy without Dr. King applying the hotfoot.”
A little more than a year since he voiced his dissatisfaction with Chicago leaders, King is shot and killed at a Memphis hotel. Read the original Tribune story.
Just one day later, Chicago explodes. Seething with anger, thousands take to the streets in a two-day siege, smashing storefront windows, plundering merchandise and setting buildings ablaze.
- Photo gallery: Chicago riots after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
- We asked for your 1968 riot stories. You responded.
- Rick Kogan: “First we tried to kill him and then we gave him a street and in the wake of the recent remembrances and events marking of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. that’s some of what we remember about the tortured relationship King had with this city.”
- Dahleen Glanton: For shame, Chicago. Why have you not fulfilled King’s Dream?
Join our Chicagoland history Facebook group and follow us on Instagram for more from Chicago’s past.
Have an idea for Vintage Chicago Tribune? Share it with Ron Grossman and Marianne Mather at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.